Evil comes to rural Pennsylvania in an unlikely guise in this novel of the American homefront during World War II.
Twelve-year-old Annabelle’s coming-of-age begins when newcomer Betty Glengarry, newly arrived from the city to stay with her grandparents “because she was incorrigible,” shakes her down for spare change in Wolf Hollow on the way to school. Betty’s crimes quickly escalate into shocking violence, but the adults won’t believe the sweet-looking blonde girl could be responsible and settle their suspicions on Toby, an unkempt World War I veteran who stalks the hills carrying not one, but three guns. Annabelle’s strategies for managing a situation she can’t fully understand are thoroughly, believably childlike, as is her single-minded faith in Betty’s guilt and Toby’s innocence. But her childlike faith implicates her in a dark and dangerous mystery that propels her into the adult world of moral gray spaces. Wolk builds her story deliberately through Annabelle’s past-tense narration in language that makes no compromises but is yet perfectly simple: “Back then, I didn’t know a word to describe Betty properly or what to call the thing that set her apart from the other children in that school.” She realizes her setting with gorgeous immediacy, introducing the culture of this all-white world of hollows, hills, and neighbors with confidence and cleareyed affection.
Trusting its readers implicitly with its moral complexity, Wolk’s novel stuns. (Historical fiction. 9-13)
A multilayered novel set in turbulent times explores music’s healing power.
Sweeping across years and place, Ryan’s full-bodied story is actually five stories that take readers from an enchanted forest to Germany, Pennsylvania, Southern California, and finally New York City. Linking the stories is an ethereal-sounding harmonica first introduced in the fairy-tale beginning of the book and marked with a mysterious M. In Nazi Germany, 12-year-old Friedrich finds the harmonica in an abandoned building; playing it fills him with the courage to attempt to free his father from Dachau. Next, the harmonica reaches two brothers in an orphanage in Depression-era Pennsylvania, from which they are adopted by a mysterious wealthy woman who doesn’t seem to want them. Just after the United States enters World War II, the harmonica then makes its way to Southern California in a box of used instruments for poor children; as fifth-grader Ivy Lopez learns to play, she discovers she has exceptional musical ability. Ryan weaves these stories together, first, with the theme of music—symbolized by the harmonica—and its ability to empower the disadvantaged and discriminated-against, and then, at the novel’s conclusion, as readers learn the intertwined fate of each story’s protagonist.
A grand narrative that examines the power of music to inspire beauty in a world overrun with fear and intolerance, it’s worth every moment of readers’ time. (Historical fiction. 9-14)